Tag: 4th Edition

Building New Worlds

Courtesy Blizzard

The Nentir Vale seems a decent starting area for most Dungeons & Dragons adventures in 4th edition. But it’s only a smaller part of a larger world, most of which is undocumented. In order to expand beyond the Vale, a little groundwork needs to be laid. As I start considering where my current party will go from here, and where other players may start their own adventures (this weekend, for instance?), there are a few things that need to be taken into account.


The Nentir Vale is a northern portion of whatever continent it’s on, but it’s not covered in snow like the northern content of Northrend in Azeroth. Reaches beyond the Vale are colder and more stereotypically “northern”, while south of the Vale are lands that are more temperate. When mapping out the rest of the shore, if not the world, it will behoove a DM to keep in mind that the Nentir Vale is similar, at least in part, to a land like Canada or the Ukraine. It should fit into any maps accordingly.


Evidence exists of some sort of kingdom or empire south of the Vale. Some history is given in the material available to DMs of 4th edition, but that can of course be mined or even ignored if it benefits the story and campaign. To me, having a more structured if somewhat oppressive authority to the south while the north remains wild and untamed will not only lend the world a necessary dimension of diversity, but will also lead to…


There are only so many delves a party can enter without being connected to a larger world. As much fun as it is to enter a forgotten tomb or horrors or track a dragon down to their lair, games like Dragon Age and Fable lend weight and memorability to their stories by pulling the player into a large world outside themselves, one with politics, history and the threat of war. In order to engender this atmosphere in a D&D campaign, work must be done to establish the background, relationships and points of contention between the extant powers that be. The players can choose one side or another to support, or they can upset both sides to carve their own place in the world.

A good DM remembers that the players are the stars. When it comes to decisions outside of mechanics, they should be allowed to make those decisions even if the consequences are negative. Failing to roll the right number to hit should be the extent of out-and-out “punishments” the DM hands down. Maybe slaying the potentate of a land will have a different outcome than the players intend, but it isn’t the place of the DM to talk them out of it because of what it’d do to their story. Instead, such an occurrence should be seen as an opportunity to allow growth in the world, exploration of the player’s characters and the basis for new adventures.

With the right foundations, a new world can be built any number of ways.

Opening the Dungeon Master’s Kit

From MEPACON Fall 2010

Thanks to my attendance at MEPAcon this past weekend and the generous guys of the Portal Comics & Gaming in Bethlehem, I now own the Dungeon Master’s Kit, a D&D Essentials product in the vein of the new Red Box and the Monster Vault. The party is returning to the Nentir Vale tonight, and while my laptop awaits a new power supply, this Kit promises to make sure I do not assume my place behind the screen unarmed.

Peeling away the plastic and pulling off the cover depicting some rather dashing art, one discovers the following.

Reavers of Harkenwold. This is a two-part adventure that not only expands further upon the denizens and situations within the Nentir Vale, but also explores many of the aspects key to a well-rounded adventure and part of a larger campaign: NPCs with personalities and goals, dungeons with traps and branching pathways, role-playing encounters and so on. So far there’s a great deal of potential and I will know more once the party enters the Harkenwold.

Battle Maps. These go with the adventure and also can be used afterwards. One of the maps has art consistent with the quality seen in the other Essentials products while the other feels a little lackluster. It could just be the brightness of the colors and the thickness of the lines, but it doesn’t appear to be of the same quality. To me, at least. Still, the greater variety of locations on these maps means they can be combined with those from the other products to mix things up for the players in future encounters.

Monster tokens. While you’re sure to see some repetition between these counters and those in both the Monster Vault and the Red Box, there are plenty of human opponents included, for use as guardsmen, minions or competing sellswords. There are also some rather nice NPC counters mixed in to the bunch. From the innkeeper’s wife to a white-bearded wizard, you can now depict either valuable allies or singular villains on the maps when your heroes storm the enemy stronghold. Like the Monster Vault’s tokens, these are two-sided to facilitate easily showing when a victim is bloodied.

Hero tokens. Expanding on those included in the Red Box, an entire sheet in the DM Kit is dedicated to the races available to players, from dragonborn to tieflings. There are more humans than any other race, and spaces that could include more art from other races — dwarves or halflings for example — are taken up with Action Point tokens. I’m glad to see some of these races get tokens, as I mentioned in my Red Box unboxing that getting miniatures for all of these guys can be quite an investment, and I personally am a big fan of dragonborn and tieflings as player races. As complaints go, holding something in your hands and saying “I wish there were more of these” isn’t a bad one.

DM Screen. Flimsier than its stand-alone cousin, it still contains a lot of information a DM might need in the course of an encounter, right at their fingertips. It also conceals notes and dice rolls from the players.

Dungeon Master’s Book. There have been some updates to the 4th edition rules since the original DMG came out a couple years ago, and this book makes it a point to include those revisions. It also includes sections for the DM regarding campaign-building, improvisation and loot creation. What might be most surprising to veterans of Dungeons & Dragons is this book’s size. Instead of the hefty hardbacks of other core rulebooks, this is an attractive softcover that still contains a fantastic amount of information and is written in a format similar to the Monster Vault book — in-depth, easy to digest and fun to read.

While veteran DMs already armed with the tools of their trade may not see the value in this kit, newcomers to Dungeon Mastering or returning storytellers with only peripheral knowledge of 4th edition (like myself!) gain a lot of tools when they pick this up. More than just a pre-generated adventure and monsters, the Dungeon Master’s Kit lays the foundation upon which a saavy DM can build just about any campaign he or she wants. The size of the book belies the value of its information and is far more portable than others of its kind. Of the three Essentials products I’ve unboxed, the Dungeon Master’s Kit is probably my favorite. But the Monster Vault’s a close second. I loves me some beholders and owlbears.

Opening the Monster Vault

Courtesy Worlds of D&D
Image courtesy Worlds of D&D

The adventures of our intrepid heroes in the Nentir Vale will continue, probably when Melanie Goodmelon’s player returns from vacation in New Orleans. In the meantime, Andrasian’s player and myself happened across a great discovery. Not due out for another week to most retailers, a local store got a copy of Wizards of the Coast’s Monster Vault, part of the Essentials line of Dungeons & Dragons products that also includes the Red Box. Having seen Greg Tito’s excellent unboxing video over on the Escapist, we decided to pick it up.

It’s an unfortunate truth that we, like many gaming groups out there, are on a budget. Big heavy books and supplements add up quickly. And miniatures? Forget about it. Unless you’re heavily invested in playing a miniatures game and have the time and skill to paint the little plastic or pewter bastards properly, it’s a lot more expensive than it’s worth. So the prospect of more counters to depict the monsters our heroes do battle with was very appealing to me. Not to mention the Red Box barely had enough kobolds for the denizens of Kobold Hall. I think I had to swap in a couple lizardmen at one point.

So, opening up the box, here’s what you’ll find.

Cairn of the Winter King. This is a 4th-level adventure, clocking in at 32 pages. It looks to be a good follow-up to Keep on the Shadowfell, which is where my victi- I mean, our heroes are headed next. There’s a good variety of encounters inside. I’m looking forward to guiding the party through it.

Glossy, 2-sided map. Like the map included with the Red Box, this is great for the included adventure but its utility will likely diminish as soon as Lyria stabs the Winter King up a treat.

Monster tokens. Damn. This is a LOT of monsters. There are 10 sheets of die-cut, heavy-grade monster tokens here, each double-sided so you can flip them over when the monster becomes bloodied. There’s also a clever mechanic introduced. Some of the tokens have a black ring around them that is separate from the monster itself, indicating that the monster contained in the ring is Huge instead of Large. This adds a lot of longevity and flexibility to the creatures inside, and allows a DM to get creative with his or her monsters. I mean, how often do you think players see a Huge-sized owlbear? Or gelatinous cube?

Monster Vault book proper. Big ol’ book of monsters. I don’t think there are as many monsters presented here as there are in the proper Monster Manual, but the monsters that are in this book get extensive write-ups. In a well-organized, conversational fashion, each monster is laid out in terms of background, habitat, behavior and motivations. For example, instead of giving a dry description of what a beholder is and does, the book describes the Far Realm from which they hail, what drives them to behave the way they do, the few other creatures they may serve and the ways in which they pursue their aims. It reads a lot more like a novel than a rulebook, and it makes reading up on monsters and thinking of ways to use them in a campaign a lot more enjoyable. I already have quite a few ideas for the players once they outgrow the challenges of the Nentir Vale. Heh heh heh…

All in all, this product is strikes me as a lot more useful than the Red Box. The Box is a great place for new players to start, but the Monster Vault adds a lot more depth and longevity to an investment of time and energy into 4th Edition. It’s also relatively cheap, at $30 US. Instead of buying a single rulebook for that price, you get a rulebook-style resource, a ready-made adventure and more creatures, monsters and NPCs than you can shake a bag of dice at. This one’s well worth the money.

I’m not sure which other, if any, Essentials products I’ll be picking up. Dungeon Tiles, perhaps, as ink is pretty damn expensive. I took a look at the Dungeon Master’s Kit, but my players generously set me up with a DM Screen meaning I’d have two, and I think most of the information in the Kit’s book is already available to me through other means. Then again, I hear the Kit’s included rules are updated and the adventures included are top-notch, so who knows?

Opening The Red Box

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Last night was a little different. Normally on Sunday nights I stay at home with my feet up and possibly lacking a pair of pants, and every other week I twiddle my thumbs while I wait for Classholes time to come around. Not last night, though. About mid-afternoon I put on pants and sallied forth to a friend & co-worker’s house for something a little different. We opened the Red Box.

I never had the red box myself, as a kid. I got into D&D around 2nd Edition, and I had just about wrapped my mind around the nuances and algorithms of THAC0 when 3rd Edition was announced. Naturally, I was frustrated. How dare TSR take away all the complicated algebraic formulae we’d burned lean tissue to memorize! Between 3rd Edition and Star Wars Special Edition, fans had plenty to be butthurt about. 4th Edition, released just two years ago, has been met with a great deal of similar ire from those steadfastly devoted to 3.5, people who’ve turned up their noses at anything new coming out of Wizards of the Coast and opting to play Pathfinder instead.

And now comes the Red Box. D&D for beginners. Hurt butts everywhere.

So when we opened up the box, we found the following:

Bag of dice. Off to a good start.

A two-sided, glossy map with two outdoor locations on one side and an indoor temple/dungeon/really big house on the other. Good for a couple of adventures, sure, but I suspect that unless you slice up the interior locations to be rearranged and thus ruin the outdoor maps, it might get old after a while.

Cardboard counters for heroes, monsters and Action Points. I have to admit, this was really nice. Coupled with the map, a lot of the guesswork and ambiguity is taken out of combat. Yes, there’s something charming about “picturing it in your mind,” but at the same time knowing where you stand in relation to which hulking monstrosity at any given moment is a good thing both as a player and as a DM. For folks just starting out, this is pretty ideal. Painted miniatures and custom maps can come in time, provided you have some to spare. To say nothing of money for pewter and paints.

Character Sheets. It was nice of Wizards to toss these in, and on high-quality paper as well. That said, there’s something somewhat limiting about them. Granted, the contents of the Red Box aren’t intended to take the characters too far past level 2 (more on that later) but giving characters a bit more room to grow beyond the one side of a single character sheet isn’t a bad thing. On the other hand, the blank side of the sheet is great for sketches.

Power Cards. This is where a lot of the butthurt is going to come from when fans of 3.5 check this out. 4th Edition resolved to make things a bit more streamlined and free-flowing, especially in combat, and while this wasn’t necessarily implemented well on all sides — half the skills are gone, which dilutes the versatility of a character somewhat — the Power Cards are probably the best addition to the game. Instead of hunting through the Player’s Handbook or a supplemental guide to find the particulars of a given ability, a player has a set of cards giving the name of the ability or power, what it does and how often it can be used. And… apparently… this is a bad thing?

Player’s Book. This is probably my least favorite part of the new Red Box. Now, granted, I understand why Wizards put it together this way. It’s for the total beginner working solo to introduce themselves to D&D. But when you have a few people looking to try it out with ideas of what they want to play, hunting and picking the particulars of the watered-down character creation rules out of what is essentially a Choose Your Own Adventure book is a bit tedious. Again, I’m not ignorant as to why it is this way, and in terms of getting a kid started in D&D it’s a really neat way of doing it. It’s just not helpful to people starting together as a group, and it feels a little childish in presentation.

Dungeon Master’s Book. Tied into the Player’s Book as it is, there are some rough parts of the DMB. The transition into DMing is presented as a natural extension of the CYOA aspect of the Player’s Book, with an owner of the Red Box lending his or her Player’s Book to another interested player so they can generate their character. You could probably pass the PB around from player to player and let them figure things out on their own, but that’d be an evening in and of itself, more than likely. Other than that, though, I have to say the DMB is a really solid intro to DMing, which might be the biggest hurdle some people have to clear when it comes to D&D. Laying out an adventure, coordinating a dungeon’s encounters and handling things like experience, role-playing and treasure can be daunting when you first decide to try it. The Red Box’s DMB keeps things simple, walks you through rules procedures and even reminds you that the players’ choices are just as important as your dungeon and its denizens. As much as I felt the Player’s Book doesn’t help a party starting out, the DMB does that well, once you get over the rough transitional bits.

So there you have it. Those are the contents of the Red Box and my take on them. But how does it work with new players, or experienced ones for that matter?

Tune in tomorrow, and find out.

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